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A blog about books

Notes in the Margin

A blog about books
C. J. Schuler is a freelance writer and journalist specialising in literature, travel and the arts. He has written regularly for The Independent, and has contributed to numerous other publications including the Financial Times, The Tablet and the New Statesman. He is currently Chairman of the Authors’ Club.

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Hunt the missiles

Posted by C. J. Schuler
  • Monday, 8 December 2008 at 11:45 am
BALTIYSK, RUSSIA: I am standing on a headland overlooking the Baltic Sea. In front of me, the Vistula Spit, a long, low sandbar planted with spindly trees, stretches south-west into Poland. Container vessels carry car parts and consumer goods into the ship canal that leads to Kaliningrad, 40km to the east.

On the sandy cliff stands a huge equestrian statue of the Empress Elizabeth, during whose reign (1741-61) the Russians briefly took control of this area (they didn’t regain it until 1945). Set up in 2003, on what is supposedly the westernmost point in the Russian Federation, it is claimed to be the largest equestrian statue of a woman in the world. As you look up at it, though, what is most, um, prominent is the animal’s enormous membrum virile. It is as if the empress has been endowed by proxy with the machismo necessary to challenge the West.

Baltiysk is Russia’s only ice-free port in Europe, and the headquarters of its Baltic Fleet. I had to apply in advance for permission to visit, and show my passport at a checkpoint before heading down Leninsky Prospekt to the waterfront. Locals are proud that one of the fleet’s patrol ships, the Neustrashimy, is currently taking part in operations against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Dominating the only channel through the Vistula Spit, Baltiysk controls access to the Vistula Lagoon and the Polish port of Elblag. This has led to a dispute between Poland and Russia over access to the channel, so the Polish government now plans to cut a canal through its own section of the Spit.

Tensions have been exacerbated after President Medvedev announced that Russia would position missiles in the Kaliningrad region in response to Nato’s “Son of Star Wars” defence shield. So where exactly are the missiles likely to go? There are several possibilities. About 30km up the coast, the north-western point of the Samland Peninsula is a restricted military zone, with a large barracks in the nearby town of Donskoye. There are airbases, too, around the town of Chernyakhovsk in the centre of the region. But there is a strong possibility that the missiles may be located on the Baltic Spit itself, down towards the Polish frontier. There is no border crossing there and, until a couple of years ago, much of the Russian half was a military zone. A glance at a map will confirm that this border is in fact the westernmost point of the Russian Federation. And, for the conspiracy theorists among you, Google Earth’s satellite images of the Spit go suspiciously fuzzy at this point.

Some people in the region think the missiles have already arrived, others that they have been here all along. One Kaliningrader told me they had seen them there while out picking mushrooms. All seem agreed on one thing, though: if Nato can locate its missiles in Poland and Lithuania, right on their borders, why shouldn’t they put theirs here?